Kuniyoshi exhibition

Kuniyoshi exhibition of 19th century Japanese prints, Royal Academy, London.


It’s a truism that Japanese prints were a precursor of modern manga.  In fact these prints do not look much like modern manga at all.  Modern manga designs are drawn at high speed and are meant to be assimilated in a few seconds as the reader stands on a crowded train or suchlike. The most striking thing about the Kuniyoshi prints, particularly those of warriors, is the riot of finely drawn detail they contain. So much so that one can stand  before a print for a minute or more just trying to take in what one is looking at. Are there three figures there? No, four..five!

It is surprising to learn that the prints were made under conditions of severe censorship imposed by the Shogunate.  At various times pictures of warriors later than 1570 were banned (politically sensitive), as were pictures of ladies of the evening (immoral), and kabuki actors (morally unsound).  Much ingenuity was expended in getting around these regulations. The prints of bijin (beautiful women) are easier to comprehend, as are the scenes of pleasure-boats and suchlike.  Faces are stylised, but in a different way to that commonly seen in modern manga, where the faces, and particularly the eyes, reflect the influence of 20th-century American cartoons.

However there are features in common that one can point to to that link the prints with modern manga (and anime).  The prints have writing on them – sometimes quite a lot of text.  Subjects and treatments appear that are repeated in modern manga. There’s a print in the exhibition of some comic octopi – see the opening credits  of “Natsu no Arashi”  or the print of a horrible spider attacking from above (reminiscent of many a horror anime) and the print of a fight on a rooftop – reminiscent of more than one anime (including Urusai Yatsura, IIRC).

I found the exhibition very worthwhile, and having spent all that money to travel there and get in, I also bought the catalogue, which has all the prints and a lot of explanatory text.